In a gloomy, indoor football camp on an industrial estate on the edge of Barcelona, Marta dives into tackles with the boys without fear.
The 11-year-old has been playing with teenagers who are older — and stronger — than herself for months, but so far has held her own.
Her newfound passion for football meant she watched as Spain beat England 1-0 Sunday and carry away the FIFA Women’s World Cup in Sydney, Australia.
The victory for the Spanish women’s team will have knock-on effects for the next generation of Martas who may dream of sharing the glory, said Sara Otero, Marta’s mother.
“I think it will raise visibility of football in Spain for women. I don’t think Spain is an especially sexist country but for girls and women, football has never been a very accessible sport. Maybe they thought there was too much contact or it was dangerous,” Otero, 52, a businesswoman, told VOA. “But now there has been much more effort to make football accessible to everyone, which I think is good.”
Events after the final whistle at the World Cup final perhaps proved there is still much work to be done off the pitch.
After the celebrations, attention in Spain turned to a row over alleged sexism after Luis Rubiales, the president of the Spanish Football Federation kissed female player Jenni Hermoso on the lips during the cup presentation.
Hermoso was later recorded in the dressing room saying she “did not like it,” Reuters reported, but she later played down the incident in a statement to EFE news agency.
At first, Rubiales said he was just celebrating the victory and derided critics as “idiots” for making so much of it. He later apologized, Reuters reported.
The football chief came under fire from Spain’s acting equality minister Irene Montero, who tweeted, “A non-consensual kiss is a kind of sex violence we suffer all women daily, which was until now invisible, and which we cannot normalize. Consent should be at the center.”
El Pais, a left-wing Madrid newspaper, said Monday in an editorial, “Jenni did not like the kiss, and we didn’t either,” and described it as an “intrusion, an invasion of privacy, an aggression.”
League still young
Women’s football in Spain, as in many other countries, is still in its infancy.
The professional league was only set up last season and there are 90,000 registered players which include women and girls, said Maria Rodrigo, a spokeswoman for La Liga Feminine in Spain told VOA.
Professionals in La Liga are paid on average about $65,000 per year while the elite players can expect around $98,000. It is far cry from the astronomic salaries commanded by the likes of Lionel Messi, the Argentina and Inter Miami striker.
Maria Tikas, a journalist who covers football for Sport, one of Spain’s biggest daily sport newspapers, said Rubiales’ kiss for Hermoso showed Spain still had a problem of sexism to address.
“This is a society which has a problem of inherent machoism which is only going to go away through education, cultural changes, politics and legal means. In football this is worse because it has been the territory of men for so, so, long,” she told VOA.
Hope for change
But she believes that the victory of La Roja — the name given to the Spain team — may help change things.
For one thing, there are now role models.
“Many of the players in the (Spanish) team today did not have references (to famous female players). Now when a girl sees Alexia (Putellas, of Spain and Barcelona) win the World Cup they see that could be Alexia too. They see how it could be possible for them.”
Dolors Ribalta Alcalde, an expert on female football at the University Ramon Llull in Barcelona who played for FC Espanyol, a team in the second Spanish league, said Spain’s triumph did not happen by “magic.”
“This has happened firstly because of social changes. With parents seeing it as a positive thing for their daughters to play football instead of discouraging them. Girls have started to see football as something positive,” she said.
Back at the football camp where Marta plays, there are plenty of photographs of star male players like Messi.
But even though girls’ teams play there every week, there are no pictures – yet – of the Spanish women’s team.
Many female players and their fans hope that will change soon.